Over one month of coronavirus lockdown, an estimated 11,000 fewer Europeans have died from illnesses caused by air pollution, and future effects will include 6,000 fewer cases of childhood asthma, 600 fewer preterm births, and far fewer sick days. That has health experts urging a permanent prescription for clearer skies and cleaner air.
Citing a just-published study from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), The Guardian reports that the pandemic-driven plunge in emissions has left atmospheric concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and tiny particulate matter (PM2.5) at 60% and 90% of their 2019 levels, respectively. “These two forms of pollution, which weaken the heart and respiratory system, are together normally responsible for about 470,000 deaths in Europe each year,” The Guardian writes.
In addition to 11,000 fewer deaths from chronic lung and heart disease that it has recorded in the immediate term, the CREA study also projects that “the coming months and years” will see a 1.3-million-day drop in work absences and 1,900 avoided emergency room visits, along with massive reductions in pre-term births and cases of childhood asthma—all from one month of cleaner air.
Using statistical models that combine data for air quality, disease prevalence, emissions, population, and weather, CREA “found the highest number of avoided pollution deaths in Germany (2,083), followed by the UK (1,752), Italy (1,490), France (1,230), and Spain (1,083),” reports The Guardian. Heart failure ranked highest in reduction of incidence (40%), followed by lung diseases like emphysema (17%), and strokes and cancer (13% each).
The calculation of 11,000 for Europe is considered “the most likely estimate”—results from various computer analyses in the study ranged from 7,000 to 20,000 avoided deaths. “Worldwide, the number of avoided pollution deaths will be much higher because this study focuses on one continent and one month, rather than going back to the start of the global pandemic in Wuhan six months ago,” notes The Guardian.
Also needing to be figured into future global calculations: the fact that “the world’s two most populous and polluted nations—China and India—have experienced some of the sharpest falls in air pollution.”
While there is growing evidence of a correlation between COVID-19 mortality rates and air pollution, with some studies suggesting the coronavirus may be carried via particulate matter, the researchers in this latest study “said they did not have sufficient data to include this in their models,” The Guardian writes. Lauri Myllyvirta, lead author of the report and lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, also expressed great reluctance to frame the findings as anything like a silver lining—though he did hope the study would make people think.
“What if we had this sort of air quality not because everyone is forced to sit at home but because we managed the shift to clean transport and energy?” he asked. “We have to hope this virus helps us to move forward in fighting climate change and other bigger challenges, rather than taking us back.”
L.J. Smith, a respiratory medicine specialist at King’s College hospital in London, agrees the pandemic has created an opportunity “to question what we have previously accepted as normal.” Over the past month, Smith has seen far few patients admitted with complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma, and says there is “no doubt” this is in part due to better air quality.
But the reduction in respiratory admissions will only last as long as the improved air quality itself, Smith said “If air pollution returns to its previous levels, my waiting room will once again start filling up with children and adults struggling to breathe.”